The relationship between supernatural horror and scientific materialism is a neverendingly fascinating subject, not least because the enormous and ongoing popularity of supernatural horror stories among the thoroughly secularized Western consumerist democracies, where scientific materialism has a cultural stranglehold, represents a striking philosophical fault line. One may say, as everybody from H. P. Lovecraft to S. T. Joshi to Peter Penzoldt (in his classic 1952 study The Supernatural in Fiction) has said, that enjoyment of supernatural fictions in a secular-scientific society is simply a matter of art fulfilling an intellectual-emotional need that has been inculcated in the human race over millions of years. But one may also argue that the very nature and persistence of these fictions constitutes a literal challenge to the dominant worldview.
This second approach is definitely a minority one, but it’s the one taken by English philosopher John Gray (characterized three months ago by The Telegraph as “the world’s pre-eminent prophet of doom“), who argues in a recent and fascinating essay for BBC News that the real-world plausibility of the materialist paradigm is directly challenged by Walter de la Mare’s literary evocation of the ghostly and the uncanny:
During the later decades of his long life — he was born in 1873 and died in 1956 — de la Mare was a familiar feature of the English literary landscape, a poet and anthologist whose poems were learnt by heart by successive generations of schoolchildren and whose books were widely available in public libraries. So why is he so little known today? It may be because his work conveys a sense of the insubstantial quality of everyday things, a point of view that runs counter to the prevailing creed of scientific materialism. At his peak of public recognition, de la Mare was most celebrated as a writer for children, but in nearly everything he wrote he explored experiences of the uncanny.
. . . Materialism — the philosophy, not the perennial human tendency to pursue and accumulate material things — sees the universe as a physical system. Everything that exists in it must be some sort of matter, or something that emerges from matter. In a fully scientific view of the world, only material things are real. Everything else is just a phantom.
In this view, science is a project of exorcism, which aims to rid the mind of anything that can’t be understood in terms of physical laws. But perhaps it’s the dogma of materialism that should be exorcised from our minds. Science is a method of inquiry, whose results can’t be known in advance. If scientific inquiry is the most powerful tool for increasing human knowledge, it’s because science is continuously changing our view of the world. The prevailing creed of scientific materialism is actually a contradiction, for science isn’t a fixed view of things, still less a dogmatic faith. The belief that the world is composed only of physical things operating according to universal laws is metaphysical speculation, not a falsifiable theory.
. . . De la Mare was much too refined and penetrating a mind to imagine that ultimate questions can ever be settled. Instead, he unsettled the reader’s view of things while leaving these questions open. His stories suggest that the everyday world contains gaps, anomalies and singularities, which may — or may not — point to a larger reality. The uncanniness of these tales comes from the impression they leave in the reader that our everyday existence is insubstantial and perhaps chimerical.
Materialism asserts that anything apart from physical phenomena is a figment of the imagination — a kind of apparition, which must be exorcised from the mind. It’s a very simple-minded philosophy. For de la Mare’s traveller [in his short story “Winter”], it’s not the strange visitor he encounters that’s the ghost. It’s the ordinary world that surrounds every one of us.
More: “Ghosts in the Material World“
Also note that you can listen to Gray read the essay aloud in its entirety as part of the BBC’s “Point of View” series. In this version the title is “The Limits to Materialism,” and it comes with a teaser line that nicely summarizes the piece’s overall message: “John Gray draws on a story by Walter de la Mare to argue that the prevailing creed of scientific materialism is a ‘simple-minded philosophy’ too limited for an unknowable world.”
Image: Henry Fuseli, Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Fans of both The Twilight Zone and the realm of philosophical, spiritual, religious, and psychological inquiry represented by the likes of books such as Daimonic Reality and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness — the latter featuring contributions from Teeming Brain teem members David Metcalfe and Ryan Hurd — will find much of interest in comments made by science fiction legend George Clayton Johnson in a 2003 interview conducted for the Archive of American Television. (A special thanks to Teeming Brain contributor Richard Gavin for bringing this interview, and this particular portion of it, to my attention.)
At one point during the five-hour (!) interview, Johnson speaks at length about the actual psychological, spiritual, and ontological reality of the liminal zone epitomized by the very idea and title of “the Twilight Zone.” What’s more, he asserts that the series itself can serve as a “tool” and a “consciousness expander” for helping people — especially children — to wake up to realities existing beyond the pale of the mundane world. Read the rest of this entry
In a fascinating October 30 article published at Hieropraxis — a website about Christian apologetics and, more broadly, “literature and faith, truth and beauty” — creative writing teacher Garret Johnson, who works for both the University of Houston and Houston Baptist University, talks about the deep value of Lovecraftian cosmic horror for Christians. Specifically, he argues that many Christians and other theists may live with a too-thin view of the cosmos and the awesomeness of the powers and principles that exceed it and lie beyond the natural world of scientific investigation, and that cosmic horror of the kind represented most pointedly by Lovecraft may offer a necessary philosophical and even theological corrective.
It’s an excellent piece in its own right (despite its invocation of that damnable doppelgänger, Edgar Allen Poe, as well as a misspelling of Cthulhu), but it takes on added significance for Teeming Brain readers because of its direct resonance with the expansive conversation-slash-debate that exploded here recently when I wrote a critical response to Jonathan Ryan’s absorbing examination in Christianity Today of Lovecraft, Machen, and the tension between cosmic horror and sacred terror. See “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness,” along with its raft of comments.
I heartily commend Johnson’s article to the attention of everybody involved, especially since it shows him claiming things about the fundamental import and impact of Lovecraft’s fiction that Ryan denies to Lovecraft and attributes instead to Machen. Here’s a taste, with emphases added by me:
Interestingly…for a materialist, Lovecraft seems to possess an unusual mistrust of the ultimate ends of “the sciences” and a profound lack of confidence in the autonomous human mind to either arrive at ultimate truths or to handle them once arrived at. This turns out to be a critical link between Christians and those who share such a vision of the universe as Lovecraft’s — particularly those who also flock to the unique realm of literature that is “Supernatural Horror.”
… I’m wondering if it’s as immediately odd to others as it is to me that an adamantly hard-nosed materialist not only attempted a serious treatise on “supernatural” literature but also specialized in writing it, himself. It’s true that, in Lovecraft’s mind, the beastly grotesqueries he depicted — variously referred to as the Old Ones, the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods, etc — were meant to be phenomena of strictly natural origin. But he saw such an immense gulf between the far reaches of possibility in the natural order and the human capacity for understanding such possibilities that it made for a frightening contrast: the bigness and power of the universe against the smallness and ignorance of humanity.
… The thing that’s ferociously interesting about this is that Lovecraft recognizes, and articulates (in his fiction especially), certain realities more incisively than do many of us theists who profess doctrinal convictions about them: both the frightening reality (or possibility to Lovecraft) of sentient beings with great power that exist in the universe but are not human, and the relative ignorance of an often over-confident, hubristic human race in the face of such large forces. This latter reality is compounded by another: the inability of the human mind to fully comprehend the deep things of existence.
Another great commonality, then, between Christians and readers and writers of Horror (not the gore-fest kind, but this subtle, supernatural kind) is a deep sense of, and response to, the realities of things unseen, unknown, things of deep mystery.
— Garret Johnson, “HP Lovecraft and Christian Thought,” Hieropraxis, October 30, 2012
[Update March 5, 2018: The above link has been changed to an archived page at the Internet Archive, as the original page and site are no longer available.]
Image: “Age of Chaos” by Nick Keller from Desktop Nexus
Jack Hunter, editor of Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, has just published a fascinating article at Reality Sandwich about the history of anthropological approaches to making sense of anomalous and seemingly supernatural experiences. In addition to tracing the long legacy of strategic decisions by various scholars and thinkers that led to the attitude of wholesale rejection and reductionist explaining-away that still characterizes the intellectual and scholarly mainstream today, he also underscores the shortcomings of this attitude and previews the fact that, after a century’s reign, it is now starting to lose its grip on the collective conversation and worldview.
The article goes beyond the category of merely recommended to enter the realm of the flat-out necessary. Here are some key excerpts:
[S]ocial-functionalism [is] a theory which suggests that supernatural beliefs (as well as other social institutions such as kinship systems, economic systems, and so on), persist only because they perform specific functions for a given society. This position developed from the writings of Émile Durkheim, who argued that religious beliefs and practices are essentially a form of social glue that help to ensure the cohesion and solidarity of social groups…. The social-functional perspective, then, combined with the Tylorean misinterpretation hypothesis, seemed to provide an all-encompassing explanation for the persistence of apparently irrational supernatural beliefs. The traditional social-functional approach fundamentally ignored both the significance of subjective experience for believers (attributing any psychical experiences that might be had purely to self-delusion), and the possibility that genuine psi phenomena might exist.
… The unusual phenomena investigated by parapsychologists, and the range of altered states of consciousness and supernatural beliefs encountered during ethnographic fieldwork, are aspects of the world in which we live and the cultures that have developed in it, and as such should not be ignored by the social sciences. Although we are a long way from the outright acceptance of paranormal phenomena as valid subjects for serious investigation by mainstream anthropology, it is promising to see that both contemporary anthropologists and parapsychologists are coming to realize the mutual benefits each discipline can receive from the type of interdisciplinary collaboration suggested by Andrew Lang at the end of the nineteenth century.
— Jack Hunter, “Supernatural or Natural? Anthropology and the Paranormal,” Reality Sandwich, October 4, 2012
Note that this article also appears as the introduction to the Paranthropology second anniversary anthology. Additionally, be sure to see David Metcalfe’s interview with Jack, which sheds further light on these matters: “In an Open-Minded Way: Jack Hunter on an Ethnography of Anomalous Phenomena.”
AUSTIN, Texas — Reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, often increases rather than declines with age, according to a new psychology study from The University of Texas at Austin. The study, published in the June issue of Child Development, offers new insight into developmental learning. “As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems — from God to atoms to evolution — they engage in coexistence thinking,” said Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways.”
… “The findings show supernatural explanations for topics of core concern to humans are pervasive across cultures,” Legare said. “If anything, in both industrialized and developing countries, supernatural explanations are frequently endorsed more often among adults than younger children.” The results provide evidence that reasoning about supernatural phenomena is a fundamental and enduring aspect of human thinking, Legare said. “The standard assumption that scientific and religious explanations compete should be re-evaluated in light of substantial psychological evidence,” Legare said. “The data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology.”
— “People Merge Supernatural and Scientific Beliefs When Reasoning With the Unknown, Study Shows,” The University of Texas at Austin, August 30, 2012 (via Signs of the Times; emphasis added)
The Extinction Papers – Chapter One
Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to the First Chapter of The Extinction Papers.
I’m genuinely thrilled that The Teeming Brainfather Matt Cardin has asked me to pour out my often daft and hastily supported thoughts into this ever-growing dossier as I attempt to document the multitudinous Mass Extinction of Things happening all around us. The felling of gods and monsters, culture and mores, tradition and fairy tale. The annihilation of traditional communication and existence in the moment. The second toppling of undead Disco. We are living in deleterious times, and for every spotted owl brought back from the brink of oblivion, often by the efforts of hard science and compassionate preservation, other things — more subtle and possibly more important things — are being blotted from existence with nary a peep.
In The Extinction Papers, I will attempt to chart and discuss the death of those nouns, those persons, places, and things (both concrete and nebulous) that are dying with the day. Put on your butchers apron and come with me, won’t you?